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Valverde wins Fleche Wallonne for record 5th time

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HUY, Belgium (AP) Alejandro Valverde of Spain won the Fleche Wallonne (Walloon Arrow) for a record fifth time after a fourth straight title in the Belgian classic on Wednesday.

Valverde continued his excellent form with an attack that was unanswered by his rivals 250 meters from the finish in the brutal Mur de Huy, one of cycling’s most difficult climbs.

Daniel Martin of Ireland was second and Dylan Teuns of Belgium completed the podium.

Valverde, who will turn 37 next week, last year became the first rider to win the Fleche Wallonne four times. He also won the race in 2006, 2014 and 2015.

The Spanish rider has been enjoying a great start to the season with victories at the Tour of Andalusia, Tour of Basque Country and Tour of Catalonia.

The Mur de Huy has a 26 percent gradient at its steepest point, and Valverde knows it perfectly. Right from the start of the climb, he remained well-positioned at the front and waited for the right time to surge ahead with a few hundred meters left.

The major spring classics end with Sunday’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege race. Valverde will be among the favorites, having already won it three times. The race is run over similarly hilly terrain in southern Belgium.

After Giro crash, Thomas back to support Froome in Tour

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PARIS (AP) Chris Froome will have support rider Geraint Thomas alongside him again as he pursues a fourth Tour de France title in five years.

Thomas opened the year aiming for victory in the Giro d’Italia but was forced to abandon that race because of injuries sustained in a crash caused by a police motorbike.

Thomas recently returned in the Route du Sud and gives Team Sky a second overall option if Froome struggles.

Also named to Sky’s squad Thursday were: Sergio Henao, Vasil Kiryienka, Christian Knees, Michal Kwiatkowski, Mikel Landa, Mikel Nieve and Luke Rowe.

Landa was injured in the same Giro crash as Thomas but stayed in the race, winning the 19th stage and posting three more podium finishes to claim the mountains classification.

Henao and Landa should also escort Froome in the mountains.

Froome won the Tour in 2013, 2015 and 2016.

“Aiming for that fourth victory has given me a lot of motivation,” Froome said. “To me, each Tour tells a different story. Every Tour is a different battle in terms of getting that yellow jersey and then trying to hold on to it.”

Froome preceded each of his Tour victories by winning the Criterium du Dauphine but he finished only fourth in the warm-up race this year – with former Sky teammate Richie Porte taking victory. But the Kenyan-born British rider believes he’s still the man to beat.

“We’re ready as a team and I can’t wait for the Tour to start now. Honestly, I just love it. It’s a feeling that you don’t get from any other race,” Froome said.

Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain share the record with five Tour wins each – after Lance Armstrong was stripped of his seven victories for doping.

“To win the Tour once is a huge achievement, but to win it a fourth time would be remarkable,” Sky team principal Dave Brailsford said. “We’ve selected a strong and experienced lineup who will support (Froome), and we’ll be looking to use the strength of the team to our advantage.”

The Tour begins July 1 in Duesseldorf and concludes in Paris three weeks later.

Cavendish back racing with Tour de France still possible

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LJUBLJANA, Slovenia (AP) Mark Cavendish returned to cycling for the first time since March on Thursday at the Tour of Slovenia, and the sprint star remains hopeful he can start the Tour de France next month.

Cavendish had not raced since Milano-Sanremo in March. He came down with mononucleosis caused by the Epstein-Barr virus in April, forcing him to the sideline during his typical Tour prep.

The 32-year-old British cyclist has 30 stage wins in France, four shy of Eddy Merckx’s record.

This year’s Tour begins with a short time trial July 1 in Dusseldorf, Germany.

Cavendish said he’s “fit as I can be after four weeks of training,” but his health will be closely monitored during the four-day Tour of Slovenia. Sam Bennett won Thursday’s opening stage in a sprint.